October 4, 2005 > Navrathri
by Arathi Satish
India is an ancient land of mythological stories with traditional beliefs of gods and goddesses. The beginning of summer and the beginning of winter are two very important junctions of climatic and solar influence. They are indicated respectively by the Rama-Navaratri in Chaitra (April-May) and the Durga Navrathri in Aswayuja (this year in October-November).
This month marks the beginning of Navrathri, or "nine nights," and is celebrated not only in India, but throughout the world. Evenings and nights were chosen because the agricultural communities in India had free time only in the evenings; days were spent laboring in the fields.
Navrathri is a festival of worship, dance and music, and is celebrated with great pomp and grandeur. This festival, also known as Dusshera, Das meaning "ten days," is recognized as a time for spiritual growth whereby courage is needed to stand up for good causes, to protect the weak and fight evil and temptation.
The goddess Lakshmi is worshipped for blessings and wealth, goddess Durga to overcome obstacles and to attain strength and goddess Saraswathi to bless worshipers with power and knowledge to attain spiritual enlightenment. Each state of India, celebrates the festival in a distinctive way.
Celebrants in West Bengal, Assam and Orissa, worship Durga as a symbol of the goddess Shakti, commemorating her victory over the buffalo demon Mahishasura. In Calcutta, images of the goddess are carried through the streets to be immersed in the river after nine days of celebration. Five days later, with a full moon, people worship Lakshmi.
In Punjab, a northern state of India, Navrathri is a period of fasting. In Gujarat, every evening during the nine nights, women join the Garba dance. This dance normally begins at 11 p.m. and continues until dawn, at various sites, in different areas in each city. Participants dance around an earthen lamp, singing and clapping in rhythmic movements in praise to the goddess.
The first three days of the Navrathri festival in Tamil Nadu (South India) are dedicated to Lakshmi, the next three to Durga, and the last three days to Saraswati. Dusshera is celebrated as a doll festival. One of the main characteristic features of the festival is the display of traditional Indian dolls. Dolls and idols of gods are arranged in steps like a staircase or "kolu."
The dolls on display represent gods and goddesses giving a helping hand to Durga to fight the demon. Each day, special food is prepared. In the evening, the Kuthuvilakku, a lamp, is lit and an offering of flowers and fruits is made to the kolu. Friends and neighbors are invited to join in the celebrations and a token gift is given to them. The dolls are handed down from mother to daughter and are considered special heirlooms.
In Himachal Pradesh, images of gods from all over the valley are brought together in decorated palanquins (a covered sedan chair, or litter carried on four poles) to celebrate Dusshera, and a fair is held in the region. Mysore and Andhra Pradesh celebrate Dusshera as the victory of the god Rama over King Ravana of Lanka. Friends and relatives greet each other and exchange sweets and pleasantries.
During the nine nights, celebrants dance a traditional Indian dance, called Dandiya, for hours. It is an energetic and colorful dance form from the western part of India. Two circles are formed by men and women. They move in clockwise and counter-clockwise directions with sticks called dandiyas held in their hands.
Although celebrations vary throughout India and the world, its central purpose is to give thanks to the female principle of nature and goddesses connected to them.